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Silk road luxuries glitter at the Smithsonian's Freer in newly renovated Gallery
Lobed bowl with lotus petals, birds, animals, and floral scrolls. Probably Xi’an, Shaanxi province, China, early or mid-Tang dynasty, late 7th – early 8th century. Hammered silver with repoussé, chased, and ring-punched decoration and mercury gilding.

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Highways and byways crossing the vast Central Asian desert did more than facilitate the spread of Buddhism in the early Common Era, they also paved the way for the exchange of luxury goods between China and the West. “Silk Road Luxuries from China,” opened Nov. 5 in newly renovated Gallery 16 at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art, reveals the cross-cultural impact of Silk Road trade on Chinese luxury goods.

The small but exquisite array of 21 objects, including intricately decorated mirrors, cups and other forms of tableware, display the highest levels of craftsmanship practiced by Tang dynasty artisans working in precious materials.

“A revolutionary change began to happen in China’s decorative arts, fueled by an open and cosmopolitan, multicultural society centered in the vibrant Tang capital, Chang’an,” said J. Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art. “The intermingling of Chinese traditions and foreign influences led to a remarkable change in luxury goods produced for Chinese urban elites in the sixth through the eighth century.”

Sogdian traders—ethnic Iranians originally from Sogdiana, now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in Central Asia—introduced the Chinese to new ideas in the decorative arts in the form of western and central Asian luxuries they offered in exchange for silk and other sought-after Chinese products. Objects such as tablewares made of precious metals and glass helped transform Chinese secular artistic traditions and promoted explorations of new materials, techniques, forms and decorative patterns.

Ideas and goods traveled both into and out of China along the Silk Road. Among the objects that are on view is a lobed Sogdian dish of hammered silver, decorated with the image of a lion, that may have influenced Chinese metal artisans. An eighth-century silk brocade with floral medallions that was once among the treasures held by the Shōsōin repository in Nara, Japan, reveals how Chinese exports inspired craftsmen further east.

Groupings of exquisite mirrors and silver vessels presented in the exhibition illustrate new fabrication methods and decorative motifs inspired by foreign models. Chinese smiths and founders set aside old practices and began creating objects from precious metals, adopting western hammering and gilding techniques to forge a new Chinese luxury aesthetic.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a massive piece of burial furniture made in China for the repose of a Sogdian who died far from home. This and a small number of other Chinese burial couches feature layered decorative styles and Buddhist and non-Buddhist iconography, including depictions of foreign musicians and dancers. Although made for Sogdians, the objects belong to a Chinese tradition and reflect a multicultural vision.

“Silk Road Luxuries from China” in Gallery 16 and “Chinese Ceramics: 10th-13th Century” in Gallery 15 are the most recent installations in the Freer’s plan to reimagine the entire suite of six Chinese galleries, showcasing major collections in redesigned spaces that reflect the founder’s original focus on aesthetics and comparative study.

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